Bocanegra's omission adds controversy to World Cup qualifiers
It may well be the end of an era for U.S. Soccer -- and a clear roll of the dice by Jurgen Klinsmann. On Monday, the U.S. manager left longtime captain Carlos Bocanegra off the 23-man squad for important World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica (Friday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas) and at Mexico (March 26, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision).
It's one thing for Klinsmann not to use Bocanegra as a starter, as in last month's 2-1 loss to Honduras, but it's another thing for the coach to omit Bocanegra from the squad entirely. This U.S. team needs leadership on and off the field, especially with the absences of veterans Tim Howard (back injury), Landon Donovan (self-imposed sabbatical) and Steve Cherundolo (knee injury). Also missing with injuries or illness are Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson, José Torres, Jonathan Spector and Edgar Castillo.
By his club coach's decision, Bocanegra, 33, has not played since Feb. 2 for Racing Santander, which is near the bottom of the Spanish second division. But Bocanegra does bring much-needed international experience in pressure-cooker situations just like this one -- the Californian has 110 caps and first became the U.S. captain in June 2007. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake by Klinsmann not to start Bocanegra in Honduras. Without Bocanegra's direction of the back line, the central-defense pairing of Geoff Cameron and Omar González struggled to communicate at times in their first game ever together.
Instead of easing out the longtime captain over time, however, Klinsmann has now dropped Bocanegra entirely. That takes cojones, but it also adds a controversial storyline that the U.S. doesn't need heading into Friday's game, when bagging three points against the Ticos will be paramount. And from a pure-soccer perspective, it doesn't make a lot of sense either. Are you telling me that you'd rather have Clarence Goodson (who was called in on Monday) as an option off the bench instead of Bocanegra?
Bocanegra's omission from the U.S. roster doesn't necessarily mean his international career is over. After all, DaMarcus Beasley got recalled into the team on Monday. But there is most definitely a sense that Bocanegra's nearly six-year reign as the U.S. captain is done. And if it is the end of an era, it's also appropriate to give Bocanegra plenty of credit for a job well done.
Wearing the armband isn't easy, and Bocanegra had it for the 2010 World Cup (in which the U.S. won its group ahead of England), the '09 Confederations Cup (beating Spain and reaching the final), the '09 CONCACAF Hexagonal (winning the group) and the '07 Gold Cup final (a win vs. Mexico), among other occasions. Bocanegra has never been flashy, but he has been a consistent and terrific servant to U.S. Soccer over the years, and I can't help but feel that this transition could be handled better by Klinsmann.
• Who will be the U.S. captain? With Bocanegra out and the injury absence of Howard (who wore the armband in Honduras), who will step in as captain for the U.S.? You would think the clear choice for now and the long term is Michael Bradley, the experienced 25-year-old midfielder who has the leadership tools and wants the job. But we'll have to wait and see what Klinsmann says this week to know for sure. I'm told Klinsmann may also be considering Jermaine Jones.
• There are only three natural fullbacks on the U.S. roster, the inexperienced Justin Morrow and Tony Beltrán, which tells me it's likely we could see someone like Beasley (or even Brek Shea) be considered at left back, or perhaps Geoff Cameron at right back, where he has often played for Stoke City.
• The stunning news last week in U.S. soccer was the unexpected departure of CEO Tim Leiweke from AEG, which owns the L.A. Galaxy and half of the Houston Dynamo. Leiweke, long one of the most powerful people in American soccer, was the guy who landed David Beckham and Robbie Keane for the Galaxy; who got the Galaxy's stadium built; and who did much to shape the Galaxy into the league's flagship franchise, one that has a nine-figure value. He has also been AEG owner Phil Anschutz's right-hand man since 1996 and had just signed a five-year contract last year. AEG's empire has been on the market, but Leiweke was expected to stay on with the group that bought the company.
Soccer is only a small part of AEG's global empire, but Leiweke has cared deeply about the sport going back to his first days as an indoor soccer promoter in the Midwest. But I'm told tensions had been rising between Leiweke and Anschutz over AEG's faltering pursuit of an NFL team for Los Angeles, as well as the lower-than-expected bids for AEG. When Anschutz finally decided not to sell the company last week and reengage in day-to-day operations, Leiweke was out.
How might Leiweke's departure affect the Galaxy in the short term? Well, two sources told me that Chelsea's Frank Lampard was extremely close to signing a contract with the Galaxy in the past week that would see Lampard join the team as a Designated Player this summer. Additionally, I spoke to Galaxy president Chris Klein, who did confirm that he and Leiweke were in London in the past week. Klein would not confirm anything about Lampard, but he did say the visit to Europe included a stop in Paris, where Klein and Leiweke had dinner with David Beckham and presented him with his MLS championship ring from last season.
As close as the Galaxy appear to be when it comes to landing Lampard, Leiweke's surprising departure from AEG raises some questions over whether the deal may end up happening. Leiweke has been the point man driving the negotiations with Lampard, but will Lampard still be interested in the Galaxy after Leiweke's exit? I'm told that people involved in the deal are now "taking a pause" while everyone adjusts to the Leiweke news.
Klein did point out that despite Leiweke's ouster, the perhaps bigger news for the Galaxy is that AEG and Anschutz will continue to own the team instead of selling it to someone else. Klein said he expects that he and Galaxy coach/GM Bruce Arena will now be more vocal publicly about the direction of the team, taking over some of Leiweke's role in that department, considering Leiweke's AEG replacement, Dan Beckerman, is interested in soccer but does not have the same vocal leadership style as Leiweke did.
How will last week's news impact the Galaxy? "I don't think it will," Klein said. "I've spoken to everyone involved, and the message is the Los Angeles Galaxy will continue to be the gold standard in MLS. We'll continue to be aggressive in every aspect of our business. We'll continue to be aggressive in the Designated Player market. We'll continue to push forward with all the things we always have. I think the big difference you'll see now is you'll hear a different voice coming out. We'll certainly miss Tim's, but we have to move on. One thing we learned from him is the wheels can't stop moving, and ours definitely won't."
• All things considered, I enjoyed the first edition of MLS' Rivalry Week, as well as the MLS Breakaway whip-around broadcast on NBC Sports Network on Saturday afternoon. There weren't as many goals as we might have expected overall, but the packaging was great, and some of the games were compelling. Let's hope the league continues finding ways to innovate and bring more excitement and meaning to the regular season.
• AEG seems to be grooming Klein for big things. He said one reason he was in London was for AEG's Justin Bieber tour.
• MLS things I liked: Montreal jumping out to a league-best 3-0 start that nobody saw coming; Philadelphia earning its second straight win with the difference in both victories being a Jack McInerney goal; Bill Hamid standing on his head to preserve a 0-0 tie for D.C. United with New York; Mark Geiger's refereeing job in the same game; and Chivas USA showing a ton of grit to shake off a bad red card call and earn a 1-1 tie with rival Los Angeles.
• MLS things I didn't like: Ricardo Sálazar's highly dubious straight red on Chivas USA's Joaquín Velázquez, which wasn't even worthy of a yellow; seeing Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens go down with a broken arm in a 1-1 tie against Salt Lake; the uncalled handball by Dallas' Kenny Cooper on his game-winning goal vs. Houston; teams that appeared to be playing for scoreless ties (Chicago, D.C.).
• Movie Rec of the Week: Oslo, August 31st. Available on Netflix instant streaming, this Norwegian drama by Joachim Trier makes you care about a charismatic young man who has been in rehab but is trying to find his way. Extremely well-written stuff.